By Guest Blogger Andrea Ropko

There is an energy around this current state of being that we are in that is awfully reminiscent of the time when my kids were really young. You know, those years when they were all under the age of four. Maybe it’s the smallness of our current environment combined with the Groundhog’s Day feeling that exists within this tight circle of community. Our schedule back then was bare-boned and routine: preschool two days a week, wandering up and down the streets of our neighborhood, playing with folks in various front and back yards, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and lots of snacks. Replace preschool with Zoom and you have what our day to day looks like now. Neighbors then and presently are our closest companions.

Perhaps it’s the sameness in Netflix entertainment. Back then my shows were delivered by our sweet postal lady. The discs that contained the much-awaited episodes 10 through 13 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia were carefully wrapped in the beloved red envelope. Now, there is no wait, and there is even more to choose from, which only partially explains why I have devoured #blackAF, Unorthodox, Community, and the entire series of The Middle. (The latter is actually on Amazon Prime. Prime two-day shipping existed when they were little, but streaming videos started a few years later. Prime is good. I can watch episodes of The Wire for the twentieth time AND order a bucket of medical-grade collagen cream to smear on my quarantining body.)

Or maybe it’s the importance of my mind-clearing runs that I have been taking over the last six weeks, whether I feel like it or not. When the kids were little I would stuff them into a baby jogger in the afternoons and take them out for a spin, which usually lead to them drifting off to sleep, or at least put them into a soothed trance. At the end of our daily 5K, I would think, yes, I can do this for another 24 hours. Of course, my kids are not in a jogger anymore, but I have had that same “It is well with my soul” feeling at the end of current running loops.

Another similarity between now and then, and maybe the one that is most acute, is the exhaustion. I have recently experienced that type of “what the hell is wrong with me?” tired that rivals the time period when at least one, if not all three children, did not sleep through the night. And when they did sleep, I often used that time to pour through books like Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, Raising Your Spirited Child, and The Strong-Willed Child. These are great books with some incredibly helpful nuggets of advice. IF they are read during the daytime. At 3am, they would send me spiralling down into a self-imposed abyss and used as a way to measure my parenting failures. Baby-parenting-failures. Failures. If I could go back, I would take the books out my hand, pull a cozy blanket up over my body, pat myself on the head, remind me that all is well, then chuck every one of those books in the garbage.

Now, most children are sleeping soundly and I am the one waking up at 3am (oh, the irony!). Maybe it’s hormonal shifts (oh, to be 47!). Maybe it’s my sweet dog who likes to curl up under my body like he’s a lean, lithe cat. Only he’s not a cat; he’s an 85-pound Plott Hound. Maybe it’s my 8-year old who internalizes the air of this is not business as usual and his angst around Zoom classes and his finding his way to our bed every night where he seems to sleep most comfortably on top my head. Maybe it’s the air of different and unsettled and uncertain.

For a few weeks this past March I was coping with my middle of the night awakenings again by reading every article on NPR and The New York Times and The Atlantic and whatever else I could lay my bleary eyes on, using that 2am-4am time to catch up on the trials and tribulations and number counts and projections and conjectures. It was dizzying, maddening, and downright nauseating. A dear friend of mine offered some sage advice: Don’t do that.

What I love about this particular member of my trusted tribe or circle of trust or whatever you choose to call people like this in your life is that she offers up these pieces of guidance without a hint of shouldn’t you know this by now?! And it is always followed by something to replace what I am currently doing that is presently driving me crazy. In this case she suggested that instead of using my 2am-4am awakening to read about Zoom exhaustion or lockdowns or briefing debacles, why don’t I meditate?

Maybe that’s why the two time periods feel similar. Nearly 12 years ago this same woman made the same suggestion. Meditation.

The year was 2008. I even remember the month. September. I know this because Stella was brand-spanking new. I mean DAYS old. I was not new to the practice of meditation (and I do mean practice in its complete dictionary definition). What WAS new for me was having two children under the age of two. And my reaction to new is nothing new: I found myself baffled, overwhelmed, and completely drowning in what was a girl like me thinking when I signed up for this?!

Finding a quiet space was easy when I was single and not terribly different when I got married. I struggled some when I had Heath, but I found that those moments in my rocking chair, nursing that baby boy transitioned well into moments of quiet and breathing and connecting to the present moment. But two babies. Holy crap. Even with a newborn baby girl who did not have the same colicky, non-sleeping tendencies that my son Heath had, I could not find my rhythm. And I was crushed by feelings of inadequacy. My dear friend–the one who never says, shouldn’t you be better than this by now?–made a suggestion: Meditation.

And it just so happened that there was a Morning Meditation meeting at a church within walking distance of my house. My mother would come to my home and hang out with my infant baby girl and my almost two year old who had the energy and interests that would have been better suited to a family of Midwestern farmers, while I took some time to take care of myself. The moments of quiet during those first meetings always looked like one of two scenarios: I would gnaw the inside of my cheeks to keep myself from crying in front of these other people who joined in, or I would sob uncontrollably, certain the flood gates had opened and I was either NEVER going to stop OR I was going to die. Die from crying. I was assured that this reaction was all part of the deal and normal and I was grateful for their attempt at removing my doubts. Over the next few months, my practice started to grow beyond the communal meeting. If by some miracle I found myself with two napping children, I would close my eyes and breathe. When I would wake up at 2am to nurse a baby back to sleep, rather than grab a book and annotate the reasons why I never should have had children, I would settle the inevitable ricocheting parenting doubts with a deep breath in and a deep breath out, followed by another breath in, then out. Repeat. And in this practice, I found a peace of mind and a gratitude and an ability to be in the moment, even when the moment was perhaps not as comfortable as I might think I prefer.

Back to that same friend in 2020, when I finished telling her about the article I read at 3:47am in Psychology Today regarding Zoom exhaustion, she compassionately acknowledged the realness of such an affliction, then gently reminded me: Meditate.

So, when I wake up in the middle of the night, I meditate. My first moments of the day (after I get my cup of coffee, of course) are spent breathing in, then out, then in, then out. Sometimes I set my timer for five minutes to set aside time to get quiet. I get quiet before and/or after I get on a Zoom meeting. Maybe that’s actually the biggest similarity between those baby/toddler days and the present: when uncertainty and newness arrives, the order of the day is not grounded in fixing, or figuring out, or analyzing it until it is mastered. Instead, it’s staying present to the moment that is right in front of my face. There is absolute comfort in that spot. Now, then, and–I am willing to take a wild guess here–forever. Not that I won’t need reminding.

My youngest child, Forest, recently found me sitting in my work chair, settling in for a few moments of quiet, my eyes closed.

“Are you meditating?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered with mild annoyance that he interrupted me–after all, I’d only been at it for a few seconds and my jaw was feeling tightly hinged shut.

He hopped up onto the bed in front of me. “I sit criss-cross applesauce when I meditate,” he explained, while demonstrating his Zen stance. “And I put my fingers like this,” Forest continued, touching a thumb to its corresponding forefinger, creating an OK sign with each hand.

Closing his eyes, he continued to explain what meditation looks and sounds like for him. “Then I hum. Ommmmm…”

He stopped Ommm-ing, opened one eye, and with a toothy grin, he mused, “It’s calmly-ing.”

Indeed, eight year old. Indeed.

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